Share This Article

Enlightening Views From Vets of Different Stripes

What could be easier than putting together an oral history? You just sit down with someone, turn on your recorder, ask a bunch of questions and type them up into a narrative. In reality, though, creating good oral history is an art that takes plenty of legwork, homework and journalistic and editorial skills. Good oral histories are made up of first-person stories that read smoothly and are tied together into a virtually seamless narrative. If you want an example, turn to Xiaobing Li’s Voices from the Vietnam War.

Li, a history professor who directs the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, certainly did his homework and legwork. For this work, his second oral history (following Voices from the Korean War), it took him seven years and plenty of international travel to meet and interview dozens of veterans of the American war in Vietnam. Aside from the United States, Li sat down with veterans in Vietnam, China, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakh­stan and Hong Kong. In the end, he chose 22 people to represent the views of those who took part in the war from the United States, North and South Vietnam, South Korea, China and the Soviet Union.

Which is another plus about this book. It is the first oral history of the war—and there has been a large shelf full of them in the genre—to include the first-person voices of Chinese and Russian veterans among those from this country and Vietnam. There have been narrative histories that have explored the roles of the Soviet and Chinese military in the Vietnam War, but Li’s book offers, for the first time in English, the personal stories of Russian and Chinese participants. Included among them is a former KGB spy.

Another criterion of a good oral history is that it unveils the human side of war. That is done well in this book, as the veterans from all nationalities talk about their wartime jobs as well as their personal lives before, during and after their service in Vietnam.

By and large, the Vietnamese on the other side, Li tells us, molded their own stories to follow “the official accounts that glorify the Communist victory in Vietnam.” And nearly all of the Americans have good things to say about their service. That might be because of the eight Americans Li includes in the book, five were officers and two were NCOs. The picture might have been broadened had Li included one or two men who were drafted and spent their tours taking orders from those officers and sergeants.

On the positive side, it was good to hear folks on the other side griping about conditions during the war. A former KGB agent assigned to the Russian Embassy in Hanoi, for example, speaks about “bureaucratic ignorance and carelessness” in his agency. “We couldn’t get a lot of things we needed,” he told Li. The embassy “didn’t give any special consideration to the agents.”

University Press of Kentucky, 2010